Stop Optimising


Here’s a quote from one of the gods of computer science:

“Premature optimisation is the root of all evil”

Donald Knuth

Let’s apply this to fitness.

That quote neatly encapsulates what you’re doing wrong.

You want to get the best possible results. You want to get them in the shortest possible time. And you want to do that with the least amount of effort.

This is an optimisation problem, right?

We’re minimising things and maximising things. We want to minimise time, effort, cost… We want to maximise our results…

We can’t model this precisely, it’s far too complex.

But you keep searching for the optimal solution anyway.

You’re spending too much time trying to optimise everything you do. That’s time you could be spending on actually doing stuff!

Stop hacking, start working

Maximal results usually requires maximal effort. What do I mean by that? If you want more, you have to do more. Don’t worry about overtraining before you even come close to doing it.

Train smarter, not harder, right? But there’s a limit on how smart you can train. One working set is still one working set. To quote Henry Rollins, 200lbs is always 200lbs.

(OK, let’s ignore fancy stuff like cluster sets, Myoreps…)

The problem with hacks is a basic principle that I call conservation of difficulty. Think about how much time and effort you have invested working out how to spend less time in the gym. By hacking your training you have transformed physical effort and time in the gym into mental effort and time on the internet. But unfortunately you can’t build muscle by thinking about training.

Satisficing, not optimising

“If you are an optimizer, you are after the best possible solution to a problem, be that an engineering puzzle, choosing a car, or finding a mate. If you are a satisficer, however, you’ll establish certain criteria that have to be met, and then stop your search at the acceptable first solution (or car, or mate) that fulfills such requirements.”

Massimo Pigliucci

The idea is to apply heuristics, rather than looking for an exact solution. You trade off exactness for finding a “good enough” solution in less time.

(Once you’re in the neighbourhood of a solution using a heuristic, you can iteratively improve if you like.)

Less choice, more freedom

“What does have this to do with happiness? Turns out that optimizers are more unhappy than satisficers, because the latter can stop worrying and enjoy what they’ve got, while the former will keep searching forever, or will settle for something (or someone) out of necessity, and yet feel like they could have gotten a better outcome had they continued the search (as in “the neighbor’s grass is always greener,” or “look for the one person who is your soul mate,” and similar nonsense). Moreover, the difference between the two groups is most striking when there are many choices: contrary to what most people seem to think (witness the American obsession with health plans that allow unlimited choice of doctors), too many choices have a paralyzing effect, and start a perennial chain of conterfactual thinking (“had I gone with the other brand of cereal I would have been happier”) that increases frustration and diminishes happiness.”

Massimo Pigliucci

If your natural tendency is to try to optimise, to find the smartest solution, or hack, then maybe you should try to satisfice instead. Don’t let too much information and too much choice paralyse you and get in the way of doing the work.

Freedom through discipline is what you get when you create a structure in your life, your diet, and your training, that allows you to free up mental resources for important stuff. You spend less time thinking about small details that don’t matter and more time getting the important stuff done.

You trade off the freedom to make more choices for the freedom from anxiety and fear. For example, instead of working out the most creative way of hitting your macros every day, you just follow a basic meal plan and you don’t have to think about what you’re eating.

There’s an analogy with chess: a beginner sees all possible moves, an intermediate sees a few because they know the basic principles, and a master sees all possible moves again.

Be honest: have you mastered the basics?

Without mastery, choice is paralysing. Without a clear vision, a direction, a broad understanding grounded in practical experience, you don’t benefit from more choice.

Does it work?

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.”

Bruce Lee

You probably know too much about nutrition and training. While you spend hours reading the latest research on protein intake, someone else is in the gym training. And if you haven’t been learning from your own unique experience then all of that time is wasted anyway.

You need to develop the ability to filter out knowledge that doesn’t help you right now and master the basics. Focus on the stuff that works – and works for you.

“Knowledge is not for knowing: knowledge is for cutting.”

Michel Foucault

Be ruthless and apply the via negativa principle, removing the mental, emotional, and physical junk from your life. Instead of adding complexity, look at paring back, taking away stuff that’s harming you.

Is your sleep poor? Fix it.

Eating junk food when you’re bored/tired/craving? Remove it from your cupboards.

Take home points

  1. Work harder.
  2. Learn to satisfice.
  3. Remove the junk from your life and find out what works for you.